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Smart City Testbeds Are a Vital Part of Building Useful Tech

Officials from the public, private and nonprofit sectors discussed the need for community testbeds to explore and grow smart city technologies at scale during the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference.

Digital rendering of a delivery drone in flight.
Shutterstock/Corona Borealis Studio
Testing and growing technologies to support advancements as lofty as drone deliveries and community broadband are some of the initiatives being explored with smart city testbeds. 

Carving out a small piece of the “real world” to explore new technologies is at the root of the testbed concept. It’s why these test sites have been set up in a number of communities, spearheaded by city leaders, the private sector and nonprofits. 

It’s not hard to sell a community on the benefits of smart city technologies and the concept of connectivity, said Joe Kochan, CEO for US Ignite, a tech nonprofit charged with bolstering smart communities.

“It is very hard to get them from a vision for that future to all of the difficult plumbing steps that have to go. And that’s why we think these at-scale, these real-world testbeds, can be so important,” said Kochan, speaking at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo on a panel devoted to testbeds. 

US Ignite, in coordination with the National Science Foundation (NSF), has developed Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) to set up several testbeds across the country to explore technologies like drone and other next-gen communications. These sites, located in cities and other public spaces, are at-scale developments meant to explore all the finer aspects of advanced technology, including how to expand the community buy-in of these technologies. 

“If you say, 'listen, here is a prototype of what could happen here, in service of this thing that you know you want… You want better broadband for your kids, you want devices that are always online at school and at home… you want those things,'” said Kochan, adding that proponents have to sell the projects by making the opportunities "real for people." 

In addition to serving as an explainer for the community, testbeds serve the research and development needs of technology, because theoretical simulations can only go so far, said Kira Theuer, senior business development manager for National Instruments. 

“We just generally believe that it’s really important to enable this wireless community to move beyond theory and simulations, and move actually to real-world results and testing in the real world that’s going to drive faster innovation. That’s going to get us to our next step,” Theuer said during the discussion. 

A testbed at North Carolina State University in Raleigh is the home of the Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless — known as “AERPAW.” The site focuses on applications for high-speed wireless communications serving areas like disaster and emergency response, logistics and transportation for unmanned aircraft and autonomous vehicles. The program is a drone communications platform that involves wireless communications with more than one UAV.

“With the ag-tech, and the big explosion in that area, it’s a perfect melding of being able to use that to do agricultural data, life-sciences data, to livestream it, to use the drone to recover data, and the meshing is just perfect,” said Mark Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology at North Carolina State University. 

The agriculture school at N.C. State has ample space available to fly over, said Hoit, clearing the requirement that drones avoid flying over populated areas below a certain height. The project also involves rural incorporated areas off campus. 

“The first radio is about ready to be hooked up. We’ve got fiber optics out to the farms, and we’re ready to go,” Hoit explained. 

The project in North Carolina could be clearing testing and other hurdles around drone operations, which have to happen if drones will ever advance to uses beyond aerial photography, say experts. 

“Everybody would love to have their packages delivered by drone instead of by a big, clattering UPS truck coming down the road,” said Kochan. “But nobody wants to be like, 'Oh yeah, test the flying package delivery thing over my house.'” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.